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Overview of Ecclesiastes: Finding Joy in the 'Shadowlands' Part 2

In our last post, we talked briefly about the surprising nature of the book of Ecclesiastes. We noted that ‘the Preacher’ uses certain words to paint an image for us of a broken world, ‘under the sun.’ One of the first things we note about this guide is that his language is unexpected. It is intimate; that is, it is personal and in the first person. This is highly unusual for royalty (a king’s son) to speak in this manner. Not only is his language surprisingly intimate, it is poetic, proverbial, and full of questions, mostly unanswered. Furthermore, our guide uses the inductive approach, which requires us to enter discomfort. Because the main point is not found until the end of the book, we have to be willing to walk and wade through the uncomfortable brokenness of life. We much prefer a more direct and immediate relief of brokenness to the slow, round-about, and often unresolved nature of this book.

As we walk through the messiness of this life, the language of lament surfaces. However, as Eswine notes, this is not the tantrums of spoiled children, who don’t get their way. Now is it the kind of tears that ‘our addictions or idols stir up, like the loved one who wails because her bottle of bourbon, or gallon of ice cream, or damaging relationship, was removed from her.’ We cry not for ourselves in this case. “We are lamenting the loss of something that wisdom would give thanks to be without. Ecclesiastes does not invite us to the lament of folly.”
Instead, notes Eswine:

“Wisdom teaches us that tears, at their best, pay tribute to something lost that was once cherished and it was wise to cherish it. We lament the loss of a genuine good. This is why we ache when we look at the empty chair at our Christmas table and remember the one we loved who once sat there in tandem with us, but eats with us no more. The spokesman of Ecclesiastes likewise looks at what the created world has become. His language rises deep from an intense longing for what it was meant to be but is not.”

The curse of once-Eden remains. ‘In pain you shall eat of it…thorns and thistles it shall bring forth…. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’ (Gen. 3:17-19). What God created and purposed was legitimate and original good. To lose this good is pain. There are things worth crying about. To learn such tears for the Eden that once was is to learn how to cry like the wise we are meant to become.

This lament is likewise joined with cynicism, but not the kind found on the lips of one who is skeptical about God. Again, Eswine writes, ‘Quite the contrary, you will find that the spokesman in Ecclesiastes is quite certain about God, his existence, his character, his mystery, and his goodness. Instead, the spokesman is cynical about the world and its creatures and promises.” Indeed, his cynicism is not leveled at the world itself. The king is not against trees or songs or food or love. Rather, his complaint has to do with the promise of ‘gain’ that peddles its wares amid the rubble of once-Eden.

Thus, “Ecclesiastes exposes us to this kind of lament, this kind of cynicism, so that we dull our taste for the trinkets of the world and learn to hunger instead for something truer, deeper, and richer… To want more than is offered here under the sun, and then, on the basis of reverence for God, to scream for a new and different life: this well captures the vocal mood of this book.”

But at this point, you will want to prepare yourself for a surprising twist. There is more than lament and cynicism awaiting you. In our final post on this brief overview, we will go ‘further up, further in,’ and look at a refrain Solomon writes on four different occasions.

Grace and Peace,
Wayne